Tassajara Stories


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last edit 9-28


Les Kaye was a student at Marian Derby's Los Altos Haiku Zendo who was a career IBM employee in the doomed punch card division. Unlike most students at Tassajara, he had a family and could afford to bring them all there as guests. He also had a nice new comfy car. They were there for a week in July of 1968 when Peter asked him if Tassajara could borrow his car to help pick up some dignitaries. There were more than would fit in just the Land Rover.  


The biggest deal that happened that summer was the visit of these two carloads of visitors, Zen teachers well known to western Zen practitioners: Hakuun Yasutani and Soen Nakagawa, Yasutani's student Robert Aitken of the Diamond Sangha in Hawaii, Soen's disciple Tai San who was teaching in New York City, and Maezumi from LA. Also accompanying them were Tai San's student Loly Rosset, Yasutani's Zen priest son, and Flora Cortua,  the author of An Experience of Enlightenment  which Yasutani had asked her to write.


A focal point of the visit was to honor Nyogen Senzaki, the first Zen priest to stay and teach in America. Senzaki had been left in Golden Gate Park in San Francisco in 1905 by his teacher Soyen Shaku who'd been invited there to lecture. Senzaki did menial jobs,  hung out in the library, lectured, and started the Floating Zendo which floated down to LA after the war which Senzaki spent in Wyoming at an interment camp. He died in 1958. Senzaki avoided, titles, fame, and wealth. He's known for his teaching to "Put no head above your head," and his supposed last words  "Remember the Dharma! Remember the Dharma! Remember the Dharma!"


Charles Gooding, president of the LA Bosatsukai of former Senzaki students, came along as well. Senzaki had become close with Soen as a result of reading his poetry. He was Robert Aitken's first teacher and Maezumi had sat zazen with him in LA. The only person in the ZC who'd sat with him was Claude Dalenberg who revered him. 


Among this group only Maezumi had been to Tassajara before. The others were curious to see this new Zen monastery just over a year old, especially because they had students who wanted to go there. Almost no teachers like to see their students go elsewhere to study even for a short while. They might not come back.


Yasutani and Soen were roshis and we were all excited to have three of them there at once. The other priests were called sensei and we knew they'd be roshis too someday. To us the title roshi conferred the zenith of what could be accomplished in human form. Loly Rosset reminded me decades later that I said, "Hey guys, let's go over there and get some roshi vibes."


Yasutani was in his early eighties and had been leading sesshin in the States for six years. A number of Tassajara students had done sesshin with him, among them Bob Halpern, Jeff Broadbent, Claude Dalenberg who'd sat a few in Kamakura, and Brother David Steindl-rast, an East Coast Benedictine monk not new to Zen practice.


Yasutani was in a Soto lineage that acted more like what we thought of as Rinzai. In a lecture he said that Soto's founder, Dogen, had studied koans for fifteen years with Esai, the founder of Japanese Rinzai before going to China where he attained great enlightenment practicing shikantaza, just sitting. Yasutani said Dogen's koan study was essential to his awakening. Using an analogy from Shakyamuni, he said that an archer hits the bull's eye after a hundred tries due to his effort with the first ninety-nine. In answer to a questions he said that belief in reincarnation is a requirement of Buddhism and that Buddha was born enlightened. Quite a contrast to Shunryu Suzuki's approach.


Loly, Brother David, and I rode in the back of a pickup going up the Tassajara road. Bumping along with us was Tai San. Naturally I took advantage of the situation to ask him penetrating dharma questions none of which I recall, but I do remember a response of his which was, "There are only two types of people: those who know and those who don't know." Again, cut and dry unlike what I was used to. He seemed very sure of himself but wasn't acting haughty. We pulled in next to other vehicles at a turnout about four miles up where the ridge begins.


Senzaki had designated Soen as the teacher to carry on his work in America. Soen had conducted Senzaki's funeral in LA in 1958 and was traveling with a portion of the ashes which he'd been keeping at his temple, Ryutakuji, in Shizuoka prefecture near Suzuki's Rinsoin. He'd set the ashes on the Tassajara altar for the visit and brought a pinch for scattering at our moon viewing. As the sun disappeared behind mountains to the west, the top of the full moon appeared from the east and Soen intoned the opening of the Heart Sutra: Maka Hanya Haramita Shungyo-o-o. which we chanted while watching the whole bright orb appear. He led us into another recitation of the Heart Sutra then to some other familiar chants all the while leading us in clapping to the rhythm of the words. Then he called out, "May we all exist in unity!" and we followed him doing that till he suggested we form our own moon and we joined hands and danced around in a circle. At this point he started improvising shouts at the moon and others followed.


We got back to Tassajara at bedtime. I had no interest in going to bed and went to the baths - after they were closed to guests at ten. The kerosene lamps had been extinguished but there was plenty of light from the full moon. I was enjoying the indoor open faced plunge when the silhouette of another late night bather appeared and descended the steps. It was Soen.  He was talkative, playful. Showed him how to leap into the plunge from the hand rail. Went to the steam room where he chanted in the pitch dark. Every spring as the creek subsided we'd build a little damn outside the steam rooms so that there'd be plenty of cool creek water to dip into after the hot plunge and steam. There was a large old sycamore which was half rooted in the creek. I showed Soen how we could duck down and come back up inside an opening the roots and trunk created. Slivers of light danced in. He just loved it.


That guy was like a kid, always interested in a new toy or adventure, so I suggested we go down creek. I told him no need to get dressed. As long as we stay in the creek, we can get by the Tassajara cabins naked. Hopped rocks, swam pools, once beyond civilization walked barefoot on paths and crossed creek twice to arrive at the Narrows, smooth granite contours magnificent in the moonlight. There we meditated, chanted, and jumped off the side into the deep pool. We walked down creek further to the place where sheer granite walls bank a pool. We floated looking up at the moon and stars. Standing in hip high water Soen clapped his hands which produced bouncing echoes. I joined in making loud popping sounds by cupping my hands and clapping them hard before a puckered mouth. This delighted Soen who tried in vain to do the same.


The next morning, Soen gave a talk in the zendo in which he told about our evening together in the creek under the tree, down below, and bade me to stand and demonstrate that popping sound, an exposure I didn't cherish and which brought on mild but amused scolding later in the day from Baker. During that lecture there were tremors shaking the zendo, rattling the keresene glass lamps mounted along the walls. Soen took that as a sign of the significance of our gathering.


Loly Rosset knew Soen well. She'd been Tai San's student, secretary, and adviser since soon after he arrived in New York City. She'd told him she wanted to go to a practice period at Tassajara and said, "He put up an anonymous sign quoting some Zen teaching that said the teaching is everywhere and you don't have to go all over to study." But she definitely wanted to go to Tassajara and also to see the Zen Center in San Francisco. They didn't talk about it further but he knew he couldn't stop her and she knew he didn't like it because she said they always knew what the other was thinking. So he suggested she come with him to LA where he was joining his teacher Soen and Yasutani who were coming from a sesshin in Hawaii. Maybe then they'd go check out Tassajara together. Everyone else was interested and the visit was quickly arranged. "And it was all because I insisted on going there," she said. "It sort of snowballed." They were lucky we had room for them. The guest season tended to fill up.


As Loly was one of the visiting guests, she met Suzuki in his cabin with Tai-san and a few others. "You have a big nose," Suzuki said to her. She didn't feel insulted but said she, "was very impressed by him because he was so simple, unneurotic, a little shy, and so unlike most people. I immediately felt good with him - I couldn't help it - like most people. There was just something about him, his ordinariness and a mixture of great clarity and intelligence and a little bit of Dennis-the-Menace humor in one of his eyes, the way the one eyebrow raised."


She'd been close with Tai-san's wife as well and never noticed anything improper before that trip. "I was totally innocent about his thing with women." She got the first inkling when friends of his in LA didn't want to put them both up.  "At Tassajara a few days later something happened that made it pretty clear - someone came with a flashlight."  Loly, born Hannelore Eckert, having been brought up in a cultured German home, was proper and didn't go into detail.


Proper yet not prudish or naive. She might have been when she was a Hitler Youth, something she didn't advertise, but her trail led to newspaper work in Paris where she eventually got involved with the French Underground. As things were falling apart, when she reentered Germany she almost got killed by a drunk SS officer who pulled a gun on her and accused her of treason. A couple of customs agents stopped him and got her on a bus. After the war she lived in south Germany with her lesbian aunt and partner and mainly tried not to starve.


"I think like Japanese who went through the war," she said. We had a different context than the Americans. I've always been philosophically oriented. But not because of the war only - my grandfather was a Buddhist intellectual professor. He was the head of the University of Cologne which he founded with Adenauer. The Nazis put him out of business because of his international connections."


She'd been in the center of New York's avant garde society, married to Barney Rosset, founder of Grove Press (where both Baker and Peter Schneider had worked) and Evergreen Review. He won important freedom of speech court cases publishing Lady Chatterley's Lover, Tropic of Cancer, Howl, and much more. He also bought and distributed the most sexually explicit movie to date, the Swedish art film, "I am Curious Yellow," which I would see the following year in Monterey amidst a hooting audience of soldiers.


Maybe that flashlight in the night at Tassajara she referred to had something to do with Bonnie who, soon after the visit, was Tai San's attendant for a sesshin where he translated for Yasutani. She came back reporting that she loved the sesshin. She said that Yasutani gave constant interviews and she’d overheard one where the student asked if keeping up with the news would make him more deluded and that Tai San answered for Yasutani saying, “You’re so deluded that it really doesn’t matter.” She also said she and Tai San slept together every night.


Japanese Buddhist priests from different schools do not normally fraternize with each other. When I lived in Japan, I practiced with and knew Rinzai and Soto priests and couldn't get them to meet each other even when it was convenient. I was told it was unfortunate but that was the way of Japanese sectarian Buddhism. This visiting group already was exceptional in its mix of Soto and Rinzai but they shared the koan practice and vigorous drive to enlightenment. Suzuki's way was quite different but they all got along and lavishly praised each other. Tai-san called Tassajara the center of gravity of Zen in America. Suzuki said that Yasutani and Soen had painted the eyes of the Tassajara dragon that he had been drawing. Soen decided to leave some of Senzaki's ashes which Suzuki ceremoniously received from him during morning service. It rained lightly, highly unusual for the summer and then as we walked out of the zendo there was a double rainbow extending over our heads to Grasshopper Flats. Another cosmic stamp of approval.


As we stood on the road hands in gassho watching our esteemed visitors stand for a final photo, Kobun pointed to Yasutani. "Good example of great Rinzai roshi," he said - even though Yasutani was Soto. Then he nodded toward Suzuki. "And Suzuki Roshi is a good example of a great Soto Roshi." I asked what about Soen and he said, “Too much personality.”


Dan Welch drove the Land Rover with Soen and Tai-san. He knew them both. As a teenager in Stockton in 1959 he'd become a student of an unorthodox teacher who called himself MacDonough Roshi. MacDonough had suggested Dan drop by Sokoji and pay his respects to the new priest there, Shunryu Suzuki.


Gary Snyder had been most supportive in helping Dan to get to Japan to study Zen with Soen Nakagawa. Dan spent half a year in Hawaii studying Japanese. His roommate was Tai San who was spending time there studying English before going to New York to become the teacher of the Zen Studies Society. Dan spent a year and a half at Soen's temple. He did not tell stories of Tai San's rapaciousness or Soen's whacky side but of the riggers of the practice at Ryutakuji starting with the initiatory kneeling on the steps to the temple for three days, head tilted to the side on hands in gassho, a position that become most painful. Then sitting long hours on hard wood without cushions, hot summers, cold winters. He came back and got into a rock n roll and art and had no intention of doing the Zen thing again, but his sister Jeannie and her husband Howard were caretaking the Berkeley zendo and Dan was staying there when we bought Tassajara. Baker, a persuasive person, paid Dan a visit. So he came for the first practice period and threw himself into it with constancy. He was a backup to Kobun in showing us what to do and how it's done.


Loly went back to New York with Tai San as planned, but she'd return. She would be busy helping to prepare for the September 15th installation of the Zen Studies Society's new zendo at which Soen presided. Suzuki didn't go but sent a heavy Tassajara creek stone by $650 air freight in his stead. Soen gave Tai-san transmission during that visit and after that he was known as Eido Shimano Roshi.


Talking about those three teachers Loly said, "Suzuki Roshi was different in that he'd do something like clean. Eido-shi would never clean - he'd have others do that and Soen wouldn't either, not because he considered it below him but because he was always in the clouds and more into the universal than the particular but he was very adventurous. When he heard that I'd traveled all over the US with two kids and a dog and a tent and a boat and that we camped in the mountains with bears he got very excited and organized the whole zendo to go camping. That was the kind of thing he did - more dramatic. I like that too but I felt so at ease with Suzuki Roshi. There was no need to say anything.


"I had a little altar in the living room with a window behind it revealing the city and the sky and Soen Roshi was a great one for non conformity. He always had new ideas to shake things up. He found a couple of huge mushrooms on his camping trip and put them to the right and left showing the inside to the Buddha. I enjoyed Soen and he made all kinds of hocus pocus and it was interesting but kind of a little bit weird - too dramatic.


"Two weeks or so later, Suzuki Roshi was staying at my place and I was telling all about Soen and the camping and the mushrooms and I was sort of full of it and the next morning at zazen - we always did zazen in front of the Buddha - I came in and Suzuki Roshi had turned the mushrooms the other way around and I never said a word because I knew he meant don't get hung up on what he or I say and the next day I put them the other way around to show him I knew it didn't matter.


Suzuki had a chronic cough the last years of his life and this didn't go unnoticed by Loly. "The poor man had been coughing like crazy and whenever he had these attacks of coughs I'd call San Francisco and tell them he was seriously ill and to take him to a doctor. I'd tell him to lie down and I babied him a little bit. "Suzuki's doctor couldn't find anything wrong with him that would be a cause for coughing he told us in a lecture, adding that his doctor suggested it might be the result of nervousness.


"I had been studying the tea ceremony and was doing it for Soen Roshi. When Suzuki Roshi was there I had set up a trey in the back of the kitchen with everything ready but I had not yet served him tea because the opportunity had not presented itself. His wife and I did the tea ceremony for each other in San Francisco and he walked into the other room. I remember thinking he does this so often he can't take it another time. I had been with him to visit the Johnstons and Millie was so hung up on tea ceremony and she did it once and Suzuki Roshi said that was so wonderful and so she did it again and then again which was very insensitive of her. He'd seen it many times and you don't do it over and over and so I said Roshi has to go and we got out of there and he said, "You know how to take care of me."


So I had this trey with tea ceremony paraphernalia all set up and he'd noticed it and I'd never bothered him with it and before he left out of the blue he said to me, 'You're a great tea master.'"



Years later I visited with Eido Shimano at his Dai Bozatsu Monastery near Woodstock in New York. He was most cordial and remembered fondly the visit to Tassajara and Suzuki. He also remembered Dan and Dan's Quaker parents whom he said meditated but not in a Zen way.


He said that he'd always been an arrogant person and that Suzuki's total humility had so impressed him. "He was very natural. He put formality aside. That was impressive, because I was brought up in the Rinzai establishment where formality was very important. Especially in Japanese Rinzai Zen. And coming here to America and meeting Suzuki Roshi, he gave me a natural warm welcome, without formality."


One thing that surprised and somewhat bothered me is that Eido said he'd visited Suzuki in the city before the trip to Tassajara and talked to him about a woman student of his who'd applied to go to Tassajara and received no answer. Suzuki just said that he let the students take care of everything. So she didn't get in. I told Eido that her application was probably just lost and she should have tried again. We were accepting everyone back then. He said he'd tell her because she really felt bad about that. So thirty years later she was going to hear that I said she shouldn't have given up, hadn't been rejected or in that unlikely case, it would have been communicated. I said she's welcome to reapply.


Eido visited Suzuki a couple of months before Suzuki died. "Suzuki Roshi’s talk with me was unforgettable. First he said in a very comfortable way with equanimity and tranquility, "Cancer and I are now good friends." Also he brought up the famous Zen koan when the head monk asked an ill Basso how he was and Basso’s answer was Sun-faced Buddha, Moon-faced Buddha.


"Our talk was amazingly enough not at all serious. Death was approaching. He knew he would die. We knew he would die. But despite all the intense sadness, he was almost cheerful. I can’t understand it. It really meant something to me. It really surprised me. That was a big comfort to me in those days.


"Then about an hour later someone knocked at the door, and Dick Baker came in with two or three others. The way he looked at Dick Baker – that perhaps is called compassion. There was love and compassion when he looked at Dick. He didn’t say anything. Just the way he looked at him – his face and eyes – I thought, my goodness, this is called compassion.


At Baker's request, Eido gave a talk in the Buddha Hall that evening. The subject was Sun Faced Buddha, Moon Faced Buddha. Buddha feeling good. Buddha in pain. When he returned to New York he spoke of Suzuki's profound effect upon him in a lecture saying, "He is a true roshi."


"I learned a great deal from Suzuki Roshi. So in that sense I consider Suzuki Roshi not only as one of the great patriarchs of Zen in America, but also I consider myself as one of his hidden students. Nothing was drastic. So penetrating. So gentle. Like soft spring rain penetrates into the earth, saturating it. That’s how I see his teaching style. Soft gentle spring rain."



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